Robert Pattinson had just received a text from Emma Thomas, the producer of the mysterious new Christopher Nolan movie he’s scheduled to shoot later this year. The message read: “Keep it oblique.” Pattinson was on the promotional trail for Claire Denis’ interstellar “High Life,” a characteristically elliptical probe into dark thoughts and black holes, and the subject of Nolan’s unnamed 2020 tentpole had already come up too many times for comfort. There were breathless news stories about how Pattinson thought the script was “unreal,” and that the actor had only been allowed to read it in a room that was locked from the outside. In an entertainment culture fueled by secrecy and spoilers, Thomas was understandably concerned that her star might spill the beans.
She needn’t have worried. Pattinson couldn’t explain the story if he tried. “Reading the script, you’re like… ‘huh?’” the actor said towards the end of a recent interview at A24’s Manhattan headquarters. “I feel like he must have invented something new — it’s incredibly dense, but also so meticulously thought out that it’s very easy to read. It’s cool.” He smiled and shook his head: “I don’t really understand how a lot of it works, but I’m very curious to find out!”
If Pattinson has no idea what he’s getting himself into, that’s by design, and part of an approach he has cultivated for many of his more audacious recent credits. Pattinson is the first to admit his carefree approach to risk-taking, but it has helped him become one of the most exciting actors in modern cinema.
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“I think I started figuring it out a little bit on ‘Cosmopolis,’” the actor said, his energy flatlining after a whirlwind press blitz in New York. His eyes widened at the memory of David Cronenberg’s febrile death trip of a film. The fierce portrait of financial collapse served as the perfect first step in Pattinson’s ongoing plan to seize on the teen idol status he inspired with “The Twilight Saga” and transmute that cachet into more dangerous work.
“I was so nervous to even ask Cronenberg basic questions — to reveal that I didn’t know anything. So I would just sit in my hotel room and obsess over the script,” he said, flashing the sheepish grin that cuts across his face whenever he puts himself down. “And then, the evening before the first day of the shoot, I called him up and I was like ‘Hi David, I, uh, just want to ask one tiny little question…’”
Needless to say, that could have become a very long night. When Cronenberg sensed the terror in his young star’s voice, he invited him to drop by. Pattinson showed up a few minutes later, anxiously clutching a script that he’d earmarked within an inch of its life. The actor knew that Cronenberg had spent a lifetime exposing the fear that lurks under people’s skin, and he was fully prepared to be his next victim. But that’s not what happened. “I told him that I didn’t know what something meant” Pattinson remembered, “and David just said ‘Well, I don’t really know what it means either, to be honest. But isn’t it kind of juicy?’”
That was all it took. Suddenly, Pattinson had been granted permission to trust in his own talent, and in the wisdom of the visionary directors who recognized that he was more than just another pretty face. More than that, Cronenberg had invited Pattinson to act in films from the same perspective that he watches them — to let go of the feeling that he needed to know everything, and instead try to feel his way through the dark the way the rest of us do at the cinema. Approach a part like that, and you never know what you might find.
“When I first started acting,” Pattinson said, “I needed to know the psychological profiles of my characters very, very intimately. And then I realized that as soon as I try and do something where I feel like I’ve got any kind of understanding of it, it’s just a disaster. As soon as I have a set plan, it will just go wrong. Trying to almost purely rely on intuition is better. It’s easier for me to just guess, basically. I used to have scripts which were covered in notes, and now I have nothing. At all. Pretty much ever.”
When Pattinson got to set the morning after his emergency meeting with Cronenberg, he began to create a career-defining performance that would see the former YA heartthrob enter an ambitious new phase that keeps paying off. Before “Cosmopolis” premiered at Cannes, the sweet-natured Brit was best known for his splashy tabloid romance and unfairly concave cheekbones. Today, Pattinson is less associated with his vampire franchise than he is with a variety of major filmmakers, from Cronenberg to Werner Herzog, James Gray, the Safdie brothers, and now Claire Denis. He’s come a long way in the last seven years.
And yet, the night before his first day on “High Life,” Pattinson found himself right back where he started: Sitting alone in a foreign hotel room and feverishly trying to prepare for a project he didn’t fully comprehend.
Only this time, he wasn’t bent out of shape about it. “I kept trying to pull my ribs apart in front of the mirror,” Pattinson said, laughing at how bizarre he must have looked. “I was convinced that forcing my body into all these weird shapes was the only way to get ready for this movie. I wanted to work with Claire because you can see that her actors are more aware of their bodies and starting to think of them differently.”
He snuck a drag from his vape pen with ninja-like precision, hiding the device behind the arm of his coat. “There’s a lot of scenes in ‘High Life’ where I don’t have a shirt on, and under normal circumstances I would think that was really weird and actively avoid doing that,” he said. “But there’s something different about the way Claire sees skin textures and sweat and things like that. She inspires a fascination with your own body; I wanted to take control over mine and try to deform it in some ways.”
For Pattinson’s character in “High Life,” control over his body is basically the only thing he has left. Monte is one of several death row inmates who — facing a lifetime behind bars — agreed to be guinea pigs in a government experiment where they would be flung into deep space aboard a matchbook-shaped vessel. The prisoners were told they would be trying to harness energy from a black hole, but it didn’t take them long to realize they were on a one-way suicide mission for science.
As pulled apart and contorted as its lead actor tried to make his own body, “High Life” unfolds in a non-linear fashion reminiscent of prior Denis films like “Bastards” and “Chocolat”: Most of the story is told via flashbacks that only Monte and a newborn baby seem to have survived. In time, we learn about the maniacal Dr. Dibs (Juliette Binoche), who once conducted reproductive experiments on the other passengers. And we learn that Monte was the only man who refused to donate his sperm. Nothing else truly belonged to him.
That’s just about the only thing that Pattinson knew for certain about his character, even while he was playing him. “Claire always says that she didn’t change the script all the time,” the actor said, “but when I first signed up to make the movie I don’t even think Monte [was on death row because he] had killed anyone. And then suddenly, halfway through the shoot, it turns out he killed someone. I was like ‘Wait, that seems fairly significant!’”
Seven years ago, such a reveal might have broken Pattinson’s brain and sent him into an irreversible tailspin. These days, that uncertainty is what he loves most about the job. “When I read the treatment for this movie,” he said, “I was like… ‘what!?’ And that’s what I liked about it. I always find that the most interesting part of the process is the moment — the nexus of inspiration — rather than the analytical part. As soon as you start analyzing it, it’s just like…” He held up his hands like upturned claws, fingers stuck together. “Glue.”
Pattinson knew he had come to the right place when he spent the first two weeks of the shoot acting opposite an infant, and seeing how the entire production was at the mercy of his unruly co-star. “There’s a controlled eccentricity and wildness to the way Claire works, where you never really know what’s happening,” Pattinson said. “You just turn up and and treat each day in and of itself. It was quite fun.”
Still affected by the brutality and hopelessness of what he saw at the New York City jail he visited to prepare for “Good Time,” for “High Life,” Pattinson just tried to feel the difference between the confines of a prison cell and the infinity of outer space. “I found it interesting to think about how someone would react to pleasure when they don’t really know what pleasure is,” he said. “‘High Life’ is a spiritual journey for someone who doesn’t really know what a spiritual journey is, or that they even exist. It’s not like ‘The Shawshank Redemption’ where you think ‘Oh, there’s a logic to this. Oh, Monte’s going to escape.’ There’s no part of him that thinks ‘If I just do this thing, then I can get a job in a shop or a house in the countryside.’ Monte has to invent his own emotional impetus, or impeti, or…” He trailed off. “I don’t know what the word is.”
He doesn’t have to. Pattinson wanted to work with Denis because she makes films that defy easy description and embarrass your vocabulary. “Just yesterday Claire said that movies should be like songs,” he said. “Her movies cannot be expressed in any other way — it would be impossible to write ‘High Life’ as a short story or something.” A devout cinephile, Pattinson has been a fan of the director since “White Material” knocked him sideways (though he cites “No Fear, No Die” as his other personal favorite); he was seduced by how Denis’ films salvage poetry from ruin.
But for all of his success, Pattinson was terrified of meeting the director, the same way that any fan is terrified of meeting their favorite artists. “I was so nervous because I didn’t want to be embarrassed,” he said. “The balance of power is so tilted against the actor when you’re asking for a meeting, so I always think that I should basically lay everything on the line, and just be like: ‘I don’t care what the job is. You don’t even need to offer me a job! I just want to tell you I’m a fan!’”
Pattinson laughed at himself, overanalyzing this ancient history with the adorable self-loathing of someone who just got home from a first date with their dream girl. Even after experiencing Beatles-level (or at least Bieber-like) fame, and causing millions of strangers to hyperventilate at the very sight of him, Pattinson still can’t talk about his favorite auteurs without sounding like Chris Farley interviewing Paul McCartney on “SNL.” Empowerment may be the word on everyone’s lips, but great art has a funny way of making us all feel unworthy.
Pattinson’s nerves weren’t helped by the fact that it took three years of begging before Denis agreed to sit down with the eager young star. “You want to lay everything on the line, and then that person avoids meeting you,” Pattinson said. “Which happens a lot. And then the immediate thought is ‘Oh, they just think I’m shit. And then I found out that a few different people were nervous to meet me!”
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The truth is that Denis never thought Pattinson was shit — on the contrary, she saw every “Twilight” movie and was “amazed” by his performances — but she had written this particular role for the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, and wasn’t sure that it could be played by a younger actor. Denis also feared that Pattinson was too “iconic,” which is a concern that Pattinson hasn’t encountered as much as one might think. “I remember there was one movie where they literally said ‘It’s too much of a thing because of ‘Twilight,’ and maybe it was in the background [of some other projects that didn’t pan out], but that’s it,” he said.
The fact is that Pattinson has spent virtually every cent of his capital pursuing smaller movies that could only be made with a star of his caliber. “The first movie I did after ‘Twilight’ finished was ‘Cosmopolis,’” Pattinson said, “and from that point on every single thing I did was stuff I really wanted to do. None of them were stepping stones to anything. I think for me the main thing is being okay with doing little parts in things — it really, really, really frees you up to do stuff.” Stuff like “The Childhood of a Leader,” “The Lost City of Z,” and the Zellner brothers’ “Damsel,” a zany Western that violently underlines the courage of Pattinson’s conviction. “There just aren’t enough lead parts out there if you only want to do interesting things.”
At this point, it’s starting to feel like he wouldn’t know how to do anything else. But he refuses to pat himself on the back for taking the road less traveled. “I never saw it as supporting the community, but it’s just impossible to get people to see little movies,” he said. “And if no one does them, and everyone just tries to get on the bandwagon to try and chase the cash all the time, then no one will make any of those little movies.” Minutes after being so deferential and self-deprecating about his process, Pattinson was suddenly confident about his path. “Everyone’s supposed to be an activist or whatever as an actor at the moment, but [this] is the world that I like. I didn’t become an actor to be a politician or whatever. I became an actor to do interesting movies — that’s the thing I care about. If my career becomes making arthouse movies for one patron, that’s cool with me.”
Pattinson continues to take calculated risks, including two upcoming Netflix projects — David Michôd’s medieval Shakespearean hodgepodge “The King,” which co-stars Timotheé Chalamet, and Antônio Campos’ “The Devil All the Time,” a backwoods epic of faith and corruption. “It’s got a great cast and everything, but it’s really, really dark,” Pattinson said of the latter. “I was talking to Antônio about it the other day, and I was like ‘It’s great that it’s on Netflix, ’cause who would ever go see this in the cinema?’” That was supposed to be a compliment, but it didn’t come out right. “Antônio was just like: ‘Thanks?’”
In much the same way that other YA stars like Kristen Stewart and Daniel Radcliffe have matured into some of the most adventurous screen actors of their generation, Pattinson doesn’t mind turning certain people off. “There’s always a corner of the audience who feels affronted if you’re trying to make something personal and difficult,” he said, “and you should never listen to those people. They’re doing a disservice to themselves.”
Pattinson remembered how nervous he was to show “High Life” to his agents. “I’d watched the rough cut with Claire, and I was just laughing so much,” he said. “But I couldn’t tell how the final thing turned out. I worried that maybe I had such a good time making it that it was just…” He trailed off. He didn’t know how to end that sentence because his fears proved unfounded. “They had the reaction that I wanted to have, which was just like ‘Whoa, I don’t know what that is, but it’s something.’ That’s sort of the best reaction I could really hope for.”
It was a happy ending to his work on a movie that he feels has a happy ending of its own. “I loved the end of ‘High Life’ so much because it ends on a note that reveals the infinite possibilities of the afterwards,” he said. “I think there’s something so hopeful about literally traveling into the unknown.”
“High Life” is now in theaters.